The Best of Local Fast-Casual Dining
We pick our favorite dishes from local eateries. Plus: Tips for healthier ordering.
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The Bethesda area has been a fertile breeding ground for fast-casual restaurants—those counter-service places with fresh, healthy ingredients, customizable combinations, and reasonable prices for high quality. There’s Cava, the Mediterranean chain started by three Montgomery County buddies, which opened its first location on Bethesda Avenue in 2011. Now with about 30 restaurants across the country and plans to open at least 10 more by the end of this year, diners from Culver City, California, to New York City are craving Crazy Feta.
Sweetgreen, the salad chain opened by three Georgetown University students shortly after they graduated in 2007, made its appearance in Bethesda in 2009, its first suburban location. With the help of significant venture capital, there are now nearly 70 Sweetgreen locations nationwide, with several more in the pipeline.
From California Tortilla and Fish Taco to Gusto Farm to Street and more, our homegrown fast-casual spots are tried-and-true trendsetters. We decided to seek out the most delicious, distinctive and surprising contributions they’ve made. We also pitted them against the out-of-towners in taste tests, and offer some revealing information about their calorie counts.
Best Mezze Meal Deal
Lebanese Taverna’s Traditional platter includes hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh, a kibbeh and grape leaf, and two falafel.
For those who like a little bit of everything, the mezze platters at the long-established Lebanese Taverna Café are the tasty ticket. For $11.95, the Traditional platter offers plentiful mounds of hummus, baba ghanoush and tabbouleh, a kibbeh and grape leaf, two falafel and two puffy pockets of pita bread. It’s a belt buster for one person, a satisfying lunch for two. A family of four can fill up on the Lebanese Feast, a selection of 12 mezze items for $27.95, or a small group could enjoy the Supreme Feast, a choice of seven items, plus meat options, baklava and soda for $32.95.
Whichever combination you choose, the homemade hummus will be super creamy, the baba ghanoush smoky from grilled eggplant, the kibbeh and falafel nicely spiced and fried, and the hollow pitas great to deflate for dipping and scooping.
Backstory: Tanios and Marie Abi-Najm and their five children fled the civil war in Lebanon in 1976, and that same year they opened their first restaurant in Arlington. In addition to four cafés in Maryland (the first opened in Rockville’s Congressional Plaza in 1998), the Abi-Najms now run six full-service restaurants, a market, a Lebanese Taverna Express at Reagan National Airport, and a full-service catering kitchen. All five siblings are involved in the business, and while Marie Abi-Najm is technically retired, she still visits the locations. Tanios moved back to Lebanon a few years ago. lebanesetaverna.com
Best Thing That Ever Happened to Farro
When Gusto Italian Grill opened in Bethesda in 2015, its focus was build-your-own pasta bowls, Italian flatbread sandwiches and salads. Since then, the concept has shifted from Italian to healthy fast-casual; in 2016, the name was changed to Gusto Farm to Street, and early this year the noodles were nixed. Now the menu offers unique salads and pizzas, and the results prove that change can be very good. Witness the Grain Silo, a nutritional knockout that features warm seasoned farro; roasted sweet potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli; a blend of cruciferous veggies; hummus, tortilla strips, falafel and a basil pesto drizzle. Granted, there’s a lot going on here, but the textures, temperatures and flavors work well together, leaving you full, comforted and fond of farro.
Backstory: Josh Grim, a former Wall Street investment banker who grew up on a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, founded the local chainlet, which also has a branch in Silver Spring and one on the way at Westfield Montgomery mall. Grim, who partnered in 2016 with Don Schaefer, the former director of operations at Sweetgreen, and Ben Protheroe, a former regional manager at Cava, says there are more outlets in the works. eatgusto.com
Best Breakfast Riff at a Pizza Place
Cereal Milk cream soda and the Farmer’s Daughter pizza. Courtesy photo
One unusual menu item meets another at &pizza, where you can assemble breakfast at lunch or dinner with the Farmer’s Daughter, a pizza topped with spicy tomato sauce, Italian sausage, eggs, spinach, mozzarella, Parmesan and red pepper chili oil—and wash it down with Cereal Milk cream soda. The pleasing pie, subtitled “breakfast with a kick,” is just that, and the soda—created exclusively for the chain by Christina Tosi, chef and founder of Milk Bar—cuts the pizza heat with sweetness. You have to drink it to believe it, but you can really identify both tastes—milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl and fizzy vanilla cream. There are other out-of-the-ordinary drinks here (we especially like the burdock and anise root beer or the lemongrass white peach iced tea), but for the timid, there’s always bottled water and a classic tomato pie.
Backstory: The first &pizza shop, featuring oblong pies cooked briefly in hot conveyor ovens, was opened in 2012 in Washington, D.C., by two 30-something New Yorkers, Michael Lastoria and Steve Salis. There are now nearly two dozen across the country, including four in Montgomery County. Salis is no longer working with the funky chain, which refers to employees as “tribe members” and picks up the tab for staff who want ampersand tattoos. andpizza.com
Best Place to Eat Your Vegetables
Beetsteak sandwich. Photo by Rey Lopez
José Andrés makes it easy (and affordable) to eat your vegetables. At Beefsteak, Andrés’ homage to healthy eating, $4.99 buys the satisfying namesake sandwich—a thick slab of tomato topped with pickled red onions, sprouts, caper herb mayonnaise, olive oil and sea salt on an olive oil brioche bun. Or, for the same price, opt for the beetsteak, a hefty beet slice on a bun topped with the same onions and sprouts, with chipotle-flavored mayo. Aside from house-composed bowls and salads, the options for “choose your veggie voyage” include a selection of seasonal vegetables, grains, fresh and crunchy toppings, plus dressings and sauces such as green curry or spicy tomato to add some oomph. You don’t have to be completely virtuous; Beefsteak does sell bags of José Andrés potato chips.
Backstory: Beefsteak was born in Foggy Bottom in March 2015, and four other locations have opened since then, including one in Westfield Montgomery mall. The brainchild of José Andrés, the internationally known chef who lives in Bethesda, the fast-casual concept is part of ThinkFoodGroup, the umbrella company for his restaurants, products, and advocacy and education projects. beefsteakveggies.com
Best Salads at a Sandwich Shop
The Clark: chopped romaine, avocado, Brussels sprouts, grape tomatoes, smoky bacon, aged Grana Padano, Parmesan crisps, Julius Caesar’s dressing, lemon wedge and breaded chicken.
“You’re here for the hoagie,” reads Taylor Gourmet’s home page in big capital letters. Actually, we’re here for the salads. Unexpected components, such as pastina, crispy prosciutto, spicy roasted rainbow carrots, black pepper ricotta, chili-marinated asparagus and pickled red onions, add intrigue to the various salad selections, which are sharply dressed with good vinaigrettes. Topped with slices of breaded or spice-grilled chicken, they make for a satisfying meal. No roll required.
Backstory: Philadelphia friends Casey Patten and David Mazza co-founded the upscale hoagie haven in 2008 with their first restaurant in Northeast D.C.; there are now 17 shops, including two in Montgomery County. A third MoCo location, at Pike & Rose, is slated to open in February 2018. taylorgourmet.com